I Couldn't Breast-Feed My Baby (And What I Did Instead)

Written by Amanda Glenn

I remember when I decided to exclusively pump for my son. I had struggled with nursing him in the three weeks since he’d been born, and we’d been going to the doctor every few days for a weight check because he still wasn’t back up to his birth weight.

I’d gone into the doctor’s appointment anxious and hopeful that his weight would finally have gone up a good amount. It had been four days since the last time that he’d been weighed, and I knew that he was supposed to gain about an ounce per day, so I was hoping to see a gain of at least three ounces.

When the nurse put him on the scale, he’d only gained an ounce.

I walked home, pushing my tiny, seven pound baby home in the stroller and felt like a complete failure. He was the most important responsibility I’d ever had in my life, and I was screwing it up. My son wasn’t thriving, and I wasn’t giving him what he needed.

At this point, I had tried everything that I could think of to do. I’d seen two lactation consultants, called a La Leche League leader, and searched the internet exhaustively for answers. One thing that came up in those internet searches was exclusive pumping, where the baby is only fed breast milk via a bottle, not by nursing.

One thing about nursing that I really had a hard time with was not having any idea how much my son was eating, especially given that he wasn’t gaining weight. It’s unfortunate for those of us that are a bit type A that breasts don’t come with ounce markers on the outside. With no way to know for sure, I spent a lot of time worrying about how much he was eating and obsessively checking his diaper to see if he’d pooped. (Copious poops are a good sign that breast-feeding is going well.) On that walk home from the doctor’s office, I decided to switch to exclusive pumping because I needed to know how much he was eating, that he was getting enough, and that he would be okay.

After I made this decision, I struggled with feelings of disappointment in myself for not making nursing work. I felt like I’d let my son down by not nursing him, by not giving him breast milk straight from the tap — I’d read that the protective antibodies may degrade over time, and I also felt like I was depriving him of the bonding experience of nursing. Most of what I’d read online suggested that exclusively pumping was difficult, if not impossible, to keep up over the long haul. And the reaction from my friends was supportive, but cautionary. They said that nursing was much easier than pumping, and I should try to make it work if I could.

When people asked me if I was breast-feeding him, I had no idea what to say. Most of the time, I’d launch into a long, unnecessary explanation of how I was pumping for him and how even though he wasn’t nursing he was getting breast milk. Looking back, it’s obvious that I was defensive and insecure about my choice.

In many ways, it took the birth my second child to move past these feelings. When my daughter was born, the nurse put her on my chest and she latched on immediately. Though I knew nothing more about breast-feeding than I had with my first, we were able to nurse successfully. While I certainly do not want to blame my sweet son, I started to realize that a nursing relationship is just that – a relationship – and that both of us needed to work together. Though I was the adult and responsible for guiding the relationship, I could not make him eat efficiently from my breast.

In looking back, with the benefit of hindsight and more experience as a mother, I know that I did my best. I exclusively pumped for my son for 14 months. He is now three and he is hilarious, smart and a great kid (at least I think so). And I know that he almost certainly would have turned out that way whether I’d nursed him, exclusively pumped for him or formula fed him.

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